Friday, March 20, 2009

God and Darwin

It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist. What my own views may be is a question of no consequence to any one except myself.— But as you ask, I may state that my judgment often fluctuates. In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.

Charles Darwin (letter to John Fordyce, 7 May 1879)

In the seed (of a tree), then, there was invisibly present all that would develop in time into a tree. And in this same way we must picture the world.

St Augustine

Certain religious ideals are now so firmly a part of the status quo that we often forget that at their birth they were highly subversive. In the society of the ancient Mesopotamians, it was thought that human beings had been created to be the slaves of the Gods. Accordingly humanity had been assigned to build temples and offer sacrifices to them while their lazy celestial overlords looked on with magnificent indifference. In the text of Genesis the Hebrews turned this idea on its head, proclaiming that humans are actually God's representatives on earth, created in the spiritual image of God, with a responsibility to care for his creation. It was this 'myth' which was said to have been shattered with the emergence of another subversive idea, one contained within Charles Darwin's ‘On the Origin of Species’ which was published on the 24th of November 1859. According to the standard account this work shattered the spell of natural theology, exposed our lowly origins and plunged the Victorian world into a crisis of faith.

This historical record reveals a more complex and interesting picture and shows we need to be wary of our sound bite culture and its tendency to reduce the relationship between science and religion to a series of ugly struggles. As Darwin was at pains to point out, just as Newton had replaced the invisible hand of God with the invisible force of Gravity so – he said, quoting ‘a celebrated author’ (Charles Kingsley)- it was a noble conception that God ‘created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms, as to believe that he required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the action of his laws’.

In his private correspondence to Asa Gray he noted that:

I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe, and especially the nature of man, and to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. I can see no reason why a man, or other animals, may not have been aboriginally produced by other laws, and that all these laws may have been expressly designed by an omniscient Creator, who foresaw every future event and consequence. But the more I think the more bewildered I become; as indeed I probably have shown by this letter. (Darwin to Asa Gray,May 22, 1860)

Like many great scientists, Darwin had a kind of religious odyssey, moving from committed Christian, to deist at the time of writing ‘The Origin’, to agnostic as the death of his daughter and the ravages of old age and his contemplations on natural evil took their toll. Even in his agnostic phase he wrote ‘my views often fluctuate... on Mondays Wednesdays and Fridays I deserve to be called a theist, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, the feeling gradually recedes’. What sticks out most is his honesty and the way he always explores the alternate view. Just as he was prepared to subject his theory of evolution by natural selection to critique and explore its flaws, he was prepared to do the same to his religious beliefs. It was a tendency recognised by his wife Emma who wrote in 1839:

‘May not the habit in scientific pursuits of believing nothing till it is proved, influence your mind too much in other things which cannot be proved in the same way, & which if true are likely to be above our comprehension.... Every thing that concerns you concerns me & I should be most unhappy if I thought we did not belong to each other forever’.

In terms of the reaction to Darwin’s theories, it is figures like Bishop Wilberforce who have come to epitomise the response of Christian thinkers. Although it is important to emphasise that a large number of them were deeply disturbed by what Darwin had to say, there were good reasons for many to warm to the picture presented by ‘The Origin’. Charles Kingsley felt it was ‘truly an ennobling vision of nature’ and of god, that ‘he could make all things; but behold, he is so much wiser than even that, that he can make all things make themselves’, an escape from ‘that shallow mechanical notion of the universe and its creator’. Despite some misgivings with the randomness of natural selection, Asa Gray felt that the theory of evolution unified all of mankind. No longer could you argue, as many at the time did, that there were separate primordial races, which could justify slavery and racism. Sadly he was to be proved wrong in the next century. Frederick Temple, who became archbishop of Canterbury in the 1880s preached a sermon in which he enthusiastically exposed Darwin's ideas and welcomed the rise of scientific naturalism. To extend the domain of natural law, he argued, added plausibility to the notion of a world in which there was also a binding moral order.

Of the many correspondents Darwin exchanged letters with, around 200 were clergyman, some of them personal friends; many of them provided Darwin with biological data for his publications. The historian James Moore writes that 'with but few exceptions the leading Christian thinkers in Great Britain and America came to terms quite readily with Darwinism and evolution'. Likewise, George Marsden reports that '...with the exception of Harvard's Louis Agassiz, virtually every American Protestant zoologist and botanist accepted some form of evolution by the early 1870s'. It was only in the next century that widespread religious opposition began to manifest itself, as, like every powerful idea, evolution came to be adopted as a battering ram for disparate ideologies; Marxism, capitalism, scientific naturalism and, notoriously, eugenics.

It was in the 1920s and 30s that R A Fischer - a figure who is often forgotten in the Dawkins dominated discussions of the religious implications of evolution – made the most important contributions to evolutionary biology of the 20th century and put the study of the subject on a quantitative footing. He was also, as H Allen Orr points out, ‘a deeply devout Anglican who, between founding modern statistics and population genetics, penned articles for church magazines’. In a sermon delivered in the 1950s he said:

‘A man of science is engaged professionally on a particular sort of task. This is by such means as are available, particularly by observation and experiment, to acquire a better understanding of the world in which we find ourselves. Stated simply in this way, such a profession would seem by no means incompatible with religious beliefs, such as that this world is the outcome of the creative activity of a personal God, or that the Creator has an affection for his creatures, or, more specifically, that a historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, exhibited and taught the perfect way of life, which God desires human beings to endeavour to follow in a spirit of gratitude and confidence. These are simple tenets, basic, so far as I can understand, to life as a Christian. They are certainly not incompatible with a life devoted to a better understanding of some aspect or other of the Creation of which we form a part. In my own case, it is the study of the mode of inheritance of the heritable characteristics of animals, plants and men which takes up my professional time. In itself it is no more an irreligious activity than fishing, or making tents.’

But it was also in the 1950s that Fischer became concerned that there was a growing propaganda, that science is anti-religion and that religion is anti-science, and that this apprehension was spreading through the population and the education system. It is this cultural thread, which was fabricated in the 19th century, that has become dominant in our culture today, particularly in the past quarter century. It is by looking at history that we can start to examine the concepts we have inherited and see that much of the supposed conflict results from bad history and shoddy metaphysics. On that note, it is perhaps best to end with the comments of Bishop Wilberforce, who wrote in ‘The Quarterly Review’ that:

‘we have no sympathy with those who object to any facts or alleged facts in nature, or to any inference logically deduced from them, because they believe them to contradict what it appears to them is taught by Revelation.’

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